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An eventful day ends with a lopsided loss

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An eventful day ends with a lopsided loss

At the end of a day that saw the Nationals activate one of their best relievers for the first time this season, part ways with a popular veteran outfielder, prepare to send their highest-paid player out on a rehab assignment, prepare their All-Star shortstop to return to the lineup, swap out backup catchers and see their top prospect return to the field for the first time in 3 12 months, the 3 hours and 1 minute spent slogging their way through a 9-5 loss to the Mets almost felt incidental in the big picture.

"It's not always just a complete bad day," manager Davey Johnson said. "There were a lot of good things that happened that I was really proud to see."

Perhaps so, but that ballgame was as ugly as anything the Nationals have experienced in a while. With Gio Gonzalez roughed up for six early runs and the Mets building a 9-1 lead in the fourth, Johnson all but waved a white flag from his dugout perch and spent the rest of the afternoon resting some of his regulars while getting bench players and relievers much-needed work.

And still the Nationals found themselves in position to make things interesting late, bringing the tying run to the on-deck circle in both the eighth and ninth innings and forcing New York manager Terry Collins to use up four relievers to record the game's final five outs.

They never did manage to complete the improbably rally, with rookie Sandy Leon striking out with two on and two out in the ninth, but they did shower and dress feeling a bit better about themselves after what was shaping up to be a miserable afternoon at the park.

"Absolutely," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We fought back, even without our best guys out there, which is a good sign. We had some good at-bats coming down the stretch there. You know, they changed pitchers like four or five times. I don't know how many total pitchers they used. But for them to do that, they obviously respect us enough to realize we're never out of the game, and that's a great sign."

If only Gonzalez had put forth a better performance three hours earlier and kept the margin a bit closer, perhaps the Nationals' last-ditch attempts would have had a better chance of succeeding.

In what was far and away the worst of his 19 starts this season, Gonzalez struggled to locate his fastball from the very beginning and never recovered. And when he did find the strike zone, the Mets clobbered him, from David Wright's two-run homer in the first to Ike Davis' solo blast in the second to Andres Torres' double to deep left in the third.

"Just felt a little flat," the left-hander said. "Nothing was moving too much. They did a great job attacking me right off the bat. They were swinging aggressively and going after me right off the bat. Make better pitches, get better outs."

Gonzalez, who was seeking his NL-leading 13th win, never even made it out of the fourth inning. He also saw his ERA rise to 3.32, its highest level since his second outing of the season on April 12.

The All-Star hurler was admittedly surprised to see his manager emerge from the dugout and ask for the ball after only 68 pitches, but Johnson didn't see the need to leave Gonzalez on the mound and take more abuse.

"I see a guy that's having trouble, I'm not going to let him stay out there just to save my bullpen," Johnson said. "I'm going to save him. He gave me that evil stare, like: 'What am I doing out there?' ... It's more about not having to throw 20-30 more pitches in a losing cause. What's the use?"

Craig Stammen entered and almost immediately served up a three-run homer to Wright (the Mets third baseman's second blast of the day). And that turned the rest of the afternoon into something of a spring training game, with Johnson pulling Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Jesus Flores, using up all four players off his bench and finding ways to get a couple of relievers needed work in non-pressure situations.

That included the 2012 debut for Drew Storen, who 3 12 months after surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow trotted in from the bullpen for the ninth inning to a nice ovation from what remained of a crowd of 36,389.

"It's hard to explain, but it is honestly one of the best feelings in the world, to have the fans appreciate me being back out there," the 24-year-old said. "I went out there and picked up the ball and just kind of took a deep breath and thought: 'This feels really good.' It was nice."

More impressive that the reception for Storen was his efficient, 1-2-3 inning of relief, which required only nine pitches and featured groundouts by David Wright and Kirk Nieuwenhuis and a flyout by Jason Bay. He threw exclusively sinkers, topping out at 93 mph, and afterward noted he wants that pitch to become a bigger part of his repertoire.

It wasn't quite the situation Storen was used to -- the ninth inning of a lopsided loss -- but it served its purpose.

"Obviously I'd like to be on the winning side of that, but it's good," he said. "It was good to get my feet wet. Facing a guy like David Wright out of the gate, I wouldn't want it any other way. It was a good test for me."

As was Desmond's late appearance in the game. Out of the lineup for the fifth straight day with a lingering oblique strain, the shortstop entered to pinch-hit in the eighth and wound up singling, scoring all the way from first on Michael Morse's double, reaching base again in the ninth when he was hit by a pitch and successfully making a play in the field.

Put that all together, and the Nationals are convinced Desmond is ready to return to the lineup tomorrow against the Braves.

"It's good to get back on the field and see that my body is kind of, I guess, answering the right way," he said.

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION

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When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

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USA TODAY Sports

When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

Bryce Harper hasn't seen the baseball diamond since August 12 and if you follow him on social media, you know the wait is nearly killing him.

In the past week however, he has been making positive steps in his road to recovery.

Before Thursday's game against the Braves, Harper was seen running foul pole to foul pole at Nats Park.

RELATED: NAT'S DANIEL MURPHY AND SON ATTEND CAPS PRACTICE

And prior to Sunday's game against the Dodgers, Harper took batting practice.

Then, on Tuesday, Harper batted in a simulated game prior to the team's road game against the Braves. He even ran around the bases to test out his injured knee.

These are all great signs, but when can we really expect him to return?

There have been rumors that it could be as soon as this week, so the Sports Junkies took matters into their own hands and ask general manager Mike Rizzo about it on their show Wednesday morning.

"Bryce had a very productive day yesterday, a very busy day," Rizzo said.

"He had a lot of work to put in yesterday. Harp came out looking good. The anchor leg, his left leg, which is Harp's back leg, his power leg, came through it fine. We'll see how he feels today, which will be very very important and see where we take it from there. He ran bases yesterday which was good and threw from the outfield, so he's slowly and cautiously getting back into a routine. Depending on how he progresses, we'll see where we take it from there. Hopefully, he can get a couple of games of live at bat under his belt before we have that four day break before the playoffs start."

RELATED: NATS FIRST MLB TEAM TO CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT

So what exactly is Harper doing in a "simulated game?"

"It was just a hitting game for him. We brought up two minor league pitchers for him to see live stuff. What he and Steven Drew hitting, they probably had a total of about 10 or so at bats. 10 or 12 real at bats where four balls, three strikes type of thing, you hit a base hit you're out, that type of thing."

"You could do whatever you want in those games. So, we simulated with men on base, without men on base. The hitter did not know what the pitcher was going to throw and that was kind of the key to it, where you're recognizing spins and velocity and that type of thing. It's well beyond the batting practice that he's been getting recently. We'll continue to do this. We'll filter in some minor league pitchers as we go along and he'll get some time in that way until he can participating in game activities which we hope is sooner rather than later."

The magic date for Bryce Harper and the Nats is Friday, Oct. 6th when the National League Division series start and so does the Nats World Series run.